published Monday, February 14th, 2011, updated Feb. 14th, 2011 at 3:21 p.m.

Five cool family cruises

Disney FamilyFun magazine

If you’ve been thinking of taking a family cruise vacation, you’re not alone. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, more than 1.5 million children under the age of 18 set sail with their families last year. But with the vast array of ships, choosing a cruise can be overwhelming. And with costs for even short cruises running in the thousands of dollars, you want to get your money’s worth, especially as the price tag doesn’t always cover every expense, such as babysitting and onshore excursions.

Still, there are real advantages to a cruise vacation, particularly if you’re booking a multifamily or multigenerational trip. To help you get your sea legs, we’ve researched the newest and most family-friendly ships to find the coolest kids’ clubs, best activities, and most all-around spectacular entertainment at sea.

Here’s our fleet of five favorites.

1. Disney Dream.

When it sails: Year-round from Port Canaveral, Fla., for three- to five-day trips to the Bahamas.

Why it’s great for families: Yes, Disney is our corporate parent, but for kids, a cruise on this brand new ship (it launched in January) really is like a dream, as hanging art comes to life and floors morph into game boards. The Oceaneer Club, for children ages 3 to 10, offers cooking lessons, dress-up sessions, and themed playrooms. Tops for food is Animator’s Palate, where Finding Nemo’s Crush swims past on TV screens and talks to the diners in real time.

Why it made our list: The ship’s AquaDuck, a one-of-a kind water coaster, includes a swing out over the ocean in a clear acrylic tube. Mickey, Minnie, and the gang make frequent appearances at meals and deck events. At night, the Dream puts on the only fireworks show at sea.

What it costs: From $1,416 for a family of four

Find out more: disneycruise.com

2. Disney Wonder.

When it sails: May to August from Vancouver, British Columbia, for seven-night trips to Alaska.

Why it’s great for families: Whale-watching and glacier-spotting are on the docket here, and the ship’s Outlook Cafe — located atop Deck 10 and outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows — promises particularly stunning views. Plus, the ship offers a live production of Toy Story the Musical.

Why it made our list: Each port of call affords travelers the chance to enjoy Alaska’s beauty. In Juneau, passengers can take wildlife-viewing tours to see brown bears, bald eagles, and humpback whales, as well as glaciers and fjords. In Skagway, you can pan for gold.

What it costs: From $3,990 for a family of four

Find out more: disneycruise.com

3. Norwegian Epic.

When it sails: July 2010 to April 2011 from Miami, for seven-day trips to the Caribbean

Why it’s great for families: Flexible dining times and extensive programs for kids make the Epic especially family-friendly.

Little ones will likely go for the “Nickelodeon at Sea” activities, including character meet-and-greets, interactive family game shows, and screenings of Nickelodeon episodes. And slime. Lots of slime.

Why it made our list: For active families, the Epic is a good fit. There’s bowling in a six-lane alley; an Aqua Park with three massive waterslides, including one that goes through a rock-climbing wall; a full-size basketball court; a rappelling wall and climbing cage; and even a bungee trampoline. An evening highlight is the Cirque du Soleil dinner show in a real circus tent.

What it costs: From $2,160 for a family of four

Find out more: epic.ncl.com

Got some mega Nickelodeon fans? Keep an eye out in 2011 for Norwegian’s Nickolodeon All Access cruise, featuring actors from iCarly, never-seen SpongeBob episodes, and ship-wide game shows.

4. Carnival Dream.

When it sails: Year-round from Port Canaveral, Fla., for seven-day trips to the Caribbean

Why it’s great for families: Carnival has long been popular with families, and the Dream is the line’s newest and largest ship, carrying 3,600 passengers. Many staterooms are built for five people and have two bathrooms, including a junior-size tub, making them a good choice for family groups. Carnival organizes all-day (and all-night!) activities for kids as young as age 2, and the food offerings include burritos, pizza, stir-fry, and all-you-can-eat, self-serve, ice cream stations.

Why it made our list: Travelers can expect wet-and-wild fun at Water Works, which has a dual-speed racer waterslide and a corkscrew slide that twists down four decks.

Little sailors can cool off in water play areas or catch a breeze at the top-deck miniature golf course.

What it costs: From $2,490 for a family of four

Find out more: carnival.com

5. Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas.

When it sails: Year-round from Port Everglades, Fla., for seven-day trips to the Caribbean

Why it’s great for families: The Allure has something for everyone, starting with a nursery and parent-and-baby classes for ages 6 months to 3 years. The 28,000-square-foot children’s center features a kids-only theater and products from Crayola and Fisher-Price. Picky eaters can choose from among 25 restaurants, including a hot dog counter and a Johnny Rockets.

Why it made our list: A replica of Central Park with real trees and grass? A boardwalk with a carousel and games? Ice skating rink, surf simulator, zip line? Yes!

The Allure has also partnered with DreamWorks Animation to bring aboard Shrek, Po from Kung Fu Panda, and the penguins from Madagascar, among other characters.

What it costs: From $3,556 for a family of four

Find out more: royalcaribbean.com

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Four Ways to Save

Book as early as possible, even a year or more in advance. You’ll have the best chance at getting the lowest rates, plus special offers, such as two-for-one deals and airfare credits.

Travel “shoulder season” instead of peak season. For example, in the Caribbean sail in late April and May instead of March.

Look into loyalty programs and sign up for cruise line e-mails for access to special offers.

Visit Cruisecompete.com, which offers free quotes from competing travel agencies for cruises all over the world.

Find more cruise news at CruiseCritic.com, which offers detailed ship and cruise information, plus user reviews.

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Melissa Klurman lives with her family in Montclair, New Jersey.

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(c) 2011, Disney FamilyFun.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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